It’s time to revisit the question of audience age. In the essay Twilight Zone from 2009, I explored people’s relationship to time, one of our stronger life-shaping metaphors. Since then, I’ve continued to dig deeper into metaphor and have found new and compelling ideas applicable to music. There are good reasons our audiences are typically over the age of 40.
Music offers sounds that “when viewed through a lens of metaphor” become meaningful. This metaphorical thinking is a basic requirement for composers, performers, and listeners. (Because the word metaphor can be rather dry and mysterious I often use the phrase a "wine-tasting approach to music" )
Surprisingly, the ability to form metaphor is a cognitive process which begins to develop around the age of nine. In the teens to mid- twenties, metaphorical thinking remains limited, with the use of simple metaphors usually based on similar, concrete characteristics. After these years the richness and complexity of a person’s metaphor-building gains psychological and personal depth. Our metaphors develop out of the richness of life experiences.
For younger minds, metaphor is more imaginative – usually based on some physical attribute that easily reminds a person of something else. As we gradually experience more of life psychologically, the connection between items moves beyond similar outward appearances and gathers complexity and depth, leaping between more distant notions.
Haydn’s “Clock Symphony” offers an easy example of the age-related development of metaphors. Most young people will easily imagine the pizzicato celli/bass parts as a clock. There is an easily grasped, audio description of a physical thing. With some imagination, they may decide it is like the grandfather clock in their aunt’s living room. How delightful and fun that Papa Haydn wrote such music! This is the simple metaphor-building of younger minds.
It is further in life - and studies suggest beyond the late twenties - when people develop more complex metaphorical responses and understanding. Instead of a clock, a real clock, an older listener might connect the bass line with a more abstract notion of clock work, tapping into their rich psychological and emotional inner world through this metaphorical lens. Ask most 49-year-olds about this clock-sound motif and there will be complex responses quite unrelated to the machinery in auntie’s living room. A 65-year-old would potentially have yet even richer, more complex metaphorical connections when hearing this Haydn symphony.
(Staying with the clock, another example comes to mind: Beethoven’s 8th Symphony. If it is ‘about the metronome’ – this is a simple, imaginative response: unfortunately, this is usually about as deep as we go with this symphony, too.)
Everything music offers us through sounds can be used in metaphor-building. In terms of our audiences then, consider this important fact: metaphorical thinking is dependent on a having a rich reservoir of life experiences, i.e. age and fullness of life.
I’m reminded of a recent concert of Mahler’s 1st Symphony. I had disturbing images of Scooby-Doo cartoons in my head instead of the usual Mahler-esque tragedies. The shifting character and dramatic ‘monster chords’ were slick and easy - as a cartoon sound track. Was it because the conductor was so young? Was the metaphor-building that Mahler asks for still beyond the cognitive and psychological experience of the youthful leader?
I have a friend who is an English teacher and often leads high school students through Shakespeare. He is so acutely aware of what concepts are ‘available’ to each age group. The freshmen will relate to some layers of the drama, while be unable to comprehend a more complex, psychological event that the seniors will grasp instantly. The pacing and selection of layers, the density of metaphor and character types – all this is offered to students in a manner which suites their cognitive and emotional stage - and opens the door for further depth and exploration.
I’m concerned that we assume we can speak to fifth-graders and 53 year-olds about music as if is contains the same truths for each. When we lecture our adult listeners about the historical facts and structure of a piece, we miss an opportunity to guide listeners towards meaning. Metaphorical thinking requires the development of internal references - and no matter of memorizing names, dates, and trivia will enhance metaphorical thought.
Why are we reluctant to guide people into the metaphorical realms of music? What would music education look like if approached as part of metaphor-building of the human experience?
What would our box-office and programming concerns look like if we had an understanding of our audiences the way my English-teacher friend knows his students?
Contrary to feeling disappointed when only the older crowd shows up, perhaps we would value their presence. Rather than seeing them as soon-to-be-obsolete patrons, we might acknowledge that an older listener is a deep listener.
Indeed, when we fail to feed the spirit of the older listener, classical music becomes a soon-to-be-obsolete art.